Expensive doesn’t always mean good. Sometimes a cheap drum machine can be exactly the sound you need.
Everyone knows that Jeff Mills shreds on a TR-909. Or that Egyptian Lover shakes up a room with his TR-808. Or that Legendary percussionist Sheila E (who worked with Prince, Marvin Gaye, Beyoncé, Diana Ross…) makes magic happen with a Linn LM-1.
There’s no doubt that these drum machines—and the artists that made them iconic—changed music history. They redefined what virtuosity looks like. They planted the seeds for new genres and generations. But they remain out of reach for most music producers today—selling for over $5000 USD.
There’s another side of drum machine history that often remains untold. The story of artists making-do and taking cheap instruments to make a masterpiece. A good idea and a great mix make crappy gear shine. Expensive gear will never turn a bad idea into a memorable tune.
Inexpensive drum machines also find fascinating second lives in the hands of circuit benders and ‘mod’ enthusiasts. Few people would dare to open up or modify a drum machine they spend thousands of dollars on. There's way more room for DIY creativity with something you won't cry about if you ruin it.
Here are 10 cheap drum machines that groundbreaking artists turned into their creative secret weapon:
1. Seeburg Select-A-Rhythm Model 601B (1960s)
The Select-A-Rhythm is an American drum machine made by Seeburg Corporation in the 1960's. Its design is typical of early drum machines of that era. It only lets you adjust the tempo with a knob and select from various non-programmable rhythm presets.
The presets are various ballroom styles: waltz, cha cha, rumba, bolero, swing and so on. But if you push the tempo knob to its upper limit, things get interesting.
That’s what caught Martin Rev’s attention. Ultimately, he used the Shuffle preset sped up to make the beat for Suicide’s most iconic song: “Frankie Teardrop” (hear it below).
“We played at least a couple of years without any drums. We were using amp heads and turning them up to feedback. That was the pulse and it was perfect” Martin Rev—who is half of Suicide—told RBMA.
“I would scan through selling posts for used items. I would see sometimes maybe a drum machine, but it was out of my range. $50 was too much. And I saw one once that was $30, I said “wow, let me check this out. It turned out to be a Seeburg. I plugged it in, heard the sound and that’s what I used on “Frankie Teardrop.””
The percussion on Frankie Teardrop is barely rhythmic. It’s so insistent and sustained that it becomes almost a droney texture. This is a brilliant example of how to turn a seemingly limited machine into a completely new type of sonority: in your face punk.
2. Roland TR-66 (1973)
The TR-66 Rhythm Arranger is among Roland’s early attempts at making analog drum machines. Although it couldn’t be programmed, it paved the way for Roland’s revolutionary CompuRhythm series (CR-68 and CR-78) half a decade later.
The TR-66 allows you to combine two patterns. The knob in the middle lets you choose a kick, snare and hi-hat pattern. You can overlay it with one of the preset rhythms by pressing one of the colour buttons on the bottom row. Press Start and there you have it.
New Wave and pop bands from the 80’s used this drum machine to superb effect. You can hear the Cha Cha preset on Roxy Music’s “Dance Away” (listen above). Its soft velvety analog congas, kicks and hi-hats are hard not to love…
3. Mattel Bee Gees Rhythm Machine (1978)
Produced from 1978 to the early 80’s, the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine was made by children’s toy giant Mattel. It makes a single synth sound: a pulse wave. There are three presets—Disco, Latin and Pop—and one tempo button.
When Kraftwerk used it on their Computer World album and tour in 1981, it became a cult classic. Sorry Bee Gees!
Watch this live version of the song “Pocket Calculator,” you’ll hear the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine around 01:00.
This goes to show that with some imagination, even a children’s toy can make a hit song.
4. BOSS DR-55 (1980)
The Dr. Rhythm DR-55 introduced in 1980 was an early example of the ‘step-write' workflow in drum machines. It was the first of BOSS’ successful Dr. Rhythm line of early programmable drum machines.
The DR-55 stores six 16-step patterns. It also stores two 12-step patterns that let you make 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms. The programming is simple: switch the DR-55 to Write mode and press the Start button to place a sound in the sequence. Use the step knob to switch to the next step. The hi-hats can only be switched to 8ths, 12th or 16th. The Variation knob is the bonus feature: it lets you shuffle up the pattern on the fly.
The effectiveness of the four drum sounds (snare, kick, cymbal, and hi-hat) attracted many bands like New Order, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy and more recently Xeno & Oaklander.
Depeche Mode used the DR-55 throughout their 1981 record Speak and Spell (listen to one of the songs above). It remains a cult drum machine that can still be found second hand for a few hundred bucks.
5. Sound Master Memory Rhythm SR-88 (1981)
The Memory Rhythm SR-88 made by Sound Master was very similar to the BOSS DR-55—in workflow, sounds and number of patterns. The hi-hats however were entirely programmable on the SR-88. It also replaced the rimshot with a cymbal that could double as an open hi-hat.
Although the SR-88 looks awesome, it didn’t sound very punchy. Robin Gurthie of the Cocteau Twins describes getting the idea of running it through guitar amps and fuzz, but getting looked down upon by the engineers:
“There was one disappointment at the time which was the drum machines that we used, a Boss Dr Rhythm and a Sound Master SR88 played through the distortion channel of a HH IC100 combo were deemed unsuitable by the engineers and Ivo (the grown-ups) and were replaced with the ‘more professional’ (at the time as it had just been invented) Roland TR808.”
Just like the DR-55, the SR-88 represented a bygone era of compact step-write machines. While these machines might not be great on their own, nowadays they come alive when you sample them.
The folks at Dubsounds also found a cool trick: “If you go into step programming mode and tap the start button to enter a note for the cymbal, you actually get a really long decay of up to 10 seconds which is a classic white noise burst from the early '80s.”
6. Roland TR-707 (1985)
The TR-707 was Roland’s digital drum machine sampled from the analog TR-909. It has 15 sounds in 12-bit, which gives it its unique timbral character. The hi-hat, cymbals, and clap are very close to the original 909 sounds.
The interface remains one of the most cleverly designed, with volume faders for each sound of the drum kit and a grid layout showing your sequence.
MIDI and DIN sync make this machine easy to sync up with a lot of gear. There is a great and overlooked feature: the output of the rimshot can be used to trigger hardware that works with voltage pulse, like the SH-101. No wonder a lot of synth wave artists adopted the 707!
Nowadays, the TR-707 is seeing somewhat of a revival—while still being easy to get second hand under $400 USD. Which makes it an affordable machine that's ripe for mods like the one pictured above.
Canadian electronic artist Marie Davidson for example, shines with her thumping 707 drums under raw monophonic synths on her latest album Adieu Au Dancefloor:
Producer and DJ Helena Hauff is another 707 enthusiast. The machine was used on her 2015 album Discrete Desires, alongside a TR-808 and TB-303. “I have the feeling it’s more one-to-one–you do something and then the machine reacts. The machine has its own mind too, so it gives something back” wrote Hauff.
7. Electro Harmonix DRM 32 (1986)
Founded in 1968, Electro Harmonix is an American company known for its classic effects pedals. Their brief foray into analog drum machines in the late 70’s and 80’s flew under the radar.
The Digital Rhythm Matrix series (including the DRM-16 and DRM-15) has the same preset drum sounds, the difference being that the DRM-32 has 32 rhythms.
The DRM is undoubtedly an electro machine. The most distinctive sound are the space-drum and the finger snap, which respectively sound like a whacky disco tom and knuckles cracking.
Moby swears by the DRM-32 (watch him demo it below at 06:36). It still pops-up second hand for a couple of hundred bucks here and there.
One last cool thing about the DRM-32, according to Dubsounds: “Many of the sounds have a great deal of “analogue variation” in them (particularly the closed hats and snaps) and no hit sounds the same twice which—if you use the multi-samples—can really spice up your rhythm tracks.”
8. Alesis HR-16B (1987)
The HR-16 was known as a hip hop machine. It was Alesis’ early attempt at digital drum machines.
It has 16-bit sampled drums and 100 programmable patterns. It's very easy to use and the subsequent 16B model has better samples. The sounds are clean and maybe a bit cheesy, but it made history in the hands of legendary post-riot grrrl band Le Tigre.
“We thought punk was an attitude and it was about picking up whatever garbage you can get your hands on and making a band out of it. So for me, a drum machine is totally liberating, it makes you self-sufficient” said Johanna Fateman of Le Tigre.
Le Tigre used the HR-16B to make their 1999 hit “Deceptacon.”
Although the build of the HR-16B was made of cheap plastic, that made it easy to open up and mess with. Add that to the cheap price tag, and you’ve got a favourite among circuit benders like Autechre and Orbital.
9. Roland R-8 (1989)
A classic studio drum machine in the 90’s was the Roland R-8 MIDI Human Composer. It was prized for its flexibility and quality. The parameters of a sound (tune, decay, attack, nuance, output) are editable and additional PCM cards expand the sounds available. The R-8 has 32 note polyphony, 68 instruments and 100 preset patterns.
The name ‘Human Composer’ is attributed to its Feel Patches function. It adds accents and random tone changes, imitating a more human groove. It has another revolutionary feature for its time: the ability to record sound parameter changes in real time into a pattern.
Autechre are known for being elusive when it comes to disclosing their gear. But it’s well known that they used a Roland R-8. As FACT points out, “Autechre are masters at getting everyday equipment to do extraordinary things.”
10. Korg Electribe R (1999)
1999 was a good year for many things, including the launch of Korg’s Electribe line. The Electribe R (or ER-1) was the drum synthesizer that came out to accompany its bassline counterpart, the Electribe A (EA-1).
The ER-1 uses analog modelling technology that emulates ‘analog-style’ drum sounds with digital processes. Its 64-step sequencer, MIDI capacities, on-board effects and ability to save over 250 patterns make it a powerful tool. The ability to save parameter changes in real-time is also a prized feature.
Electribes are most known for how fun and easy they are to use. All the parameters of the sounds are tweakable without much menu-diving. Most Electribes also allow you to edit the sounds so much that they start sounding weird, allowing for some highly original sounds. The two audio-ins let you plug in another instrument that the sequencer will gate in time with the rhythm.
The Prodigy became fans of the Electribes, particularily the ES-1 sampler for performing and ER-1 for recording. They used the ER-1 to make the album Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (listen to one of the tracks below).
Liam Howlett—keyboardist and composer of the band—told Korg in an interview: “The ER-1 doesn't require much processing or EQing—it sounds f**king great straight out of the box.”
The Electribes might not be as iconic as the 808 and 909 yet, but they certainly have a cult following among live performers. If I were you, I’d get mine now before it starts getting too hype to be affordable…
Bonus: Wurlitzer SideMan 5000
Ikutaro Kakehashi—the late founder of Roland and inventor of the 808 and 909—first got interested in drum machines after seeing the Wurlitzer SideMan 5000. So it’s well worth mentioning!
The SideMan is the first commercially available drum machine dating from the late 50’s. The machine uses a blend of electronic and motorized mechanical parts to produce ten sounds and various preset patterns. Its unique sequencer is arranged on a rotating circle plate. The SideMan is encased in a wooden chassis and essentially looks like your grand mother's nigh table.
Nowadays, the SideMan can still be found in church basements for decent prices. The problem is finding someone to repair it—not to mention the obsolete replacement parts.
This machine became Darsha Hewitt’s big project: not only repairing the SideMan, but also making a series of videos demonstrating how it works. Watch the SideMan 5000 adventure below—I guarantee you’ll learn something.
Plus, with current songs like Drake’s “Hotline Bling” the sounds of this era of drum machines is coming back into style. Listen and download a sample of the SideMan on my Freesound page, and make your own hit.
Expensive Doesn’t Always Mean Good
There’s something to be said about making a lot with very little.
Although these drum machines have seemingly little to offer compared with today’s music production technologies, artists have proven that using cheap gear creatively makes exceptional music.
Sift through craigslist or your local pawn shop to find your own cheap used gear of choice. Sample it, throw it in your DAW, throw some effects on and master it. You’ll be surprised at how many new possibilities this offers.
Music tech history has made a lot of junk for us to be creative with, why not take it as a challenge.
Blending the old and the new, the cheap and the high-tech, the analog and the digital. Now we’re talking.